If at first you don’t succeed…..
Well folks, it’s been over a year since I began my journey to improve my mental health, which to be honest, sputtered and fell at the first hurdle. I am now feeling much better and brimming with a renewed sense of hope. Hence, I thought it would be a useful to reflect on why it took so long to find my way back to mental wellbeing.
Before launching in, it is important to acknowledge the complexity of mental health recovery, which is not an absolute destination. Rather it is a continual process of building resilience, skills and relationships that can promote your wellbeing. 1 This contemporary view of recovery is gaining traction within mental health services, as they shift focus from solely treating symptoms to helping patients achieve sustainable improvements. 2 With that being said, I have identified several key elements that have been crucial to help improve my mental health.
1) Mental health recovery is a journey with ebbs and flows: it takes time and cannot be forced by working harder
When I was struggling with depression last year, I threw myself into a rigorous regime of morning and evening self-esteem exercises. Despite being depressed, I somehow managed to complete these taxing sentence completion exercises on top of maintaining my academic job. I believed I could use hard work to dig myself out of depression. Ironically, by working so hard to improve my self-esteem, I was degrading it further!
In retrospect, it would have been sensible to go easy on myself and take time to recuperate rather than add to my workload. Introspective exercises can be helpful at certain points in your life. When you are overwhelmed, however, it can be beneficial to reduce the amount of time you spend thinking.
2) The journey needs to be enjoyable: the process is as important as the outcome.
Getting up for work is not fun, especially when you are depressed. Getting up even earlier to practice a mental wellness routine that you are not enjoying will actually exacerbate these feelings. I certainly did not enjoy getting up and writing repetitive answers to repetitive questions to improve my self-esteem: now that did feel like a chore. However, once I changed my morning routine to include Yoga followed by a short meditation, I finally began to feel much more positive about getting up in the morning.
I’ve pinpointed three reasons for this:
- I was prioritising my mental wellbeing. Sure, I still had an overwhelming amount of work to do, but I made sure I tended to my mental wellbeing first.
- I was drawing on sources filled with positivity (thank you Yoga by Adrienne!) rather than focusing on what was wrong.
- The activities I selected shifted the focus from the thinking mind. This helped me tune into how I was really feeling (more on this below). I admit there are still mornings when I find it difficult to put my mental well-being first. However, because my current routine is enjoyable, it is much easier to maintain.
3) Avoid the tendency to overcomplicate things, especially early on in your recovery journey
The main aim of my original regime was to increase my self-awareness (with the eventual goal of increasing my self-esteem). To do this, I completed ten sentences every morning and evening in a grueling written exercise. Now, I am not saying that this exercise is not useful or productive. I am sure it can be, as many fans of Nathaniel Brandon’s seminal book – the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem – would assert. However, it was not the best approach for me at the time.
In my fragile mental state, written exercises really felt like hard work, and almost self-punishment. At this point in my (busy) life, I have concluded that daily meditation is a much simpler way to increase my self-awareness. I have found that it is such a pleasure to sit and let a blanket of peace and quiet envelope you. This simple act can really help you take a step back and re-evaluate your life and goals. 3
4) Start with small steps to take more control of your life
Anxiety and depression often cause you to feel out of control. Conversely, feeling like you have no control over your situation can increase the risk of mental health problems. 4 You can start to increase your feelings of control by becoming a student (and observer) of your mental wellbeing. There are myriad ways of viewing and explaining mental illness. The medical model (i.e., there is a physical cause for mental illness, which should be treated with medication) is not necessarily the most empowering. Taking control of small aspects of your mental wellbeing (e.g., eating mood boosting foods, exercise, meditation, ecotherapy) can be very empowering and thus help contribute to your recovery and resilience. For an in-depth discussion on increasing your control during depression see this YouTube video by Teal Swan.
5) Acknowledge the importance of trial and error: one size does not fit all
When embarking on your recovery journey, it is important to realise that we are continually changing and growing: what worked previously may not work now. For example, I have always used running to moderate my moods. This was not a viable option when I injured my leg. Hence the shift to yoga, which not only helped heal my leg but also had mental benefits (as discussed above). As you progress on your recovery journey, you may become ready to dig and little deeper (as I alluded to earlier, trying to dig too deep too soon can be counter-productive).
As I started to feel a bit better, I found it useful to investigate the thought patterns and behaviours that contributed to my mental health problems. This involved revisiting my past and healing old wounds. The book: ‘Raise Your Vibration’ is a fascinating introduction to understanding how your past contributes to your current state of mind. It also describes steps you can take to counteract this. (If you are not keen on religious references you may want to find an alternative, such as a the work of Teal Swan).
6) When you feel ready, start to unpack your subconscious programming
If you have recurring depression or anxiety, it is likely that some sources of your mental health problems are stored in your sub-conscious mind.
Unfortunately, we are rarely taught how to fully understand or experience our feelings. Thus, we are often unaware of how our subconscious mind is keeping us stuck in negative cycles. These cycles drive behavioural patterns that perpetuate our anxiety and depression. 5 For example, do you always react (on autopilot) in the same passive way at work?
The neurophysiologist John Lilly believed that we can revise our old programmes and create new ones. The first step is to identify our unwanted attitudes, behaviours and habits. We can then challenge these by asking ourselves questions, such as:
- What are my goals when I engage in this attitude/behaviour?
- By what means can I stop this behaviour?
- What do I need to do in order to stop thinking, feeling or acting this way?
By critically and honestly questioning our attitudes and behaviour, we can become aware of their negative aspects. This helps us create new possibilities and change our behaviors for the good. 6
7) Remember to spend a substantial proportion of your time focusing on what you do want
Some introspection can be useful: we need to know how we are contributing to our own mental health problems so we can make positive changes. A repetitive focus on the negative aspects of ourselves or life can exacerbate our mental health problems. 7 As I have started to feel better, I have increasingly focused on what I want for my future. This contrasts to existing in survival mode and dwelling on the negative aspects of my life. I have changed my focus from what isn’t going right at work to what I can achieve outside of work. In other words, how can I improve my life circumstances and opportunities. This has shifted my locus of control, as I develop non-work-related skills, including sailing and investing in the stock market! As a result, work-related issues are less stress-inducing and all encompassing.
- Mental Health Foundation (2019). Recovery. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/r/recovery (Accessed on 14 July 2019).
- Slade, M., Amering, M., Farkas, M., et al. (2014). Uses and abuses of recovery: implementing recoveryâoriented practices in mental health systems. World Psychiatry, 13, 12-20 (available on Google Scholar)
- Freedom Genesis (2019). The Importance of Meditation And How it Can Improve Your Life. Retrieved from https://freedomgenesis.com/importance-meditation/ (Accessed on 20 July 2019).
- Yu, X & Fan, G. (2014). Direct and indirect relationship between locus of control and depression. Journal of Health Psychology, 21 (7), 1293-1298.
- Rippo, M. (2016). Minding the Mind/Body Connection in Moving Beyond Self-Sabotage and Resistance to Change. Journal of Heart Centered Therapies, 19, 2, 39-62. (Available online: Google Scholar).
- Brenner, A. (2013). How to change your behaviour for good. Essential questions to challenge your beliefs. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/in-flux/201306/how-change-your-behavior-good (Accessed on 14 July 2019).Â
- Ruscio, A.M., Gentes, E.L., Jones, J.D., Hallion, L.S., Coleman, E.S., Swendsen, J. (2015). Rumination Predicts Heightened Responding to Stressful Life Events in Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 124, (1), 17-26 (available on Google Scholar)